The Special Olympics are profoundly special for Master Sgt. Amber Dunn of Galesburg, patrol officer with Illinois State Police.
An ISP officer since 2010, the 47-year-old is the State Police coordinator (for all of Illinois) for the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR). The next four weeks will be the biggest time in Dunn’s career as far as helping the fundraiser, which has collected nearly $1 billion for Special Olympics programs since the run was founded in 1981.
The LETR is a priority for Illinois State Police and Dunn educates new cadets at the state Police Academy about it. It’s the largest financial supporter for Special Olympics (about 80%), and Illinois is always in the top five of all states nationwide, she said in a Tuesday interview with Local 4.
“A lot of it’s fundraising, but a lot of it is going out to games, cheering them on, putting medals around their necks,” Dunn said. She did her first LETR in 2011 and they take place in different parts of the state, all leading to the final leg to the Illinois state games at the Illinois State University stadium in Bloomington-Normal.
Dunn has taken part in the runs that go from Rock Island to Galesburg, to Peoria, among 23 legs over a week — ending up at ISU, this year on June 9.
“It’s just incredible, everybody fills the stadium, we have a line of officers that do high-fives with the athletes,” Dunn said. “We have an actual torch run around the stadium, after it gets dark, with the lit torches and then there are fireworks.”
She has often done the final leg, including ones in Springfield. Next month, the Illinois LETR will be held June 3-9 and conclude with the Final Leg in conjunction with the 2023 Special Olympics Illinois Summer Games Opening Ceremony.
Dunn has done the last leg a half dozen times, including walking in the stadium with an athlete. On average, there are 60 officers that are in the final leg and 20 into the stadium.
“It’s so fun – you have the squad cars with the lights and fire trucks along with you, and people lining the streets. It’s incredible,” she said. “It’s a pretty unique experience.”
The main goal is to help special-needs athletes compete at no cost, Dunn said.
“The families are not having to pay for this. It’s expensive enough to raise kids, let alone one with special needs,” she said. “So in order to support them so that they can participate is so important.”
“A lot of them go out and lead relatively similar lives to what we do – they have jobs,” Dunn said of those with special needs. “Bringing the awareness helps people know, they are athletes; some of them are business owners.”
“For us personally, it’s not always in our job that you get a ‘thank you,’ or any of that stuff,” she said of being a police officer. “You go out and see a lot of negative stuff; you’re investigating criminal activity; you’re seeing shootings. Think about all the things you hear about on a regular basis, there’s a lot of negativity.”
“This is just all positive,” Dunn said of Special Olympics. “It just fills your cup. You may be having a bad day, and you get out there and you have an incredible day. You may have an incredible week, maybe a month.”
LETR began in 1981 when Wichita, Kansas Police Chief Richard LaMunyon created the Torch Run. He thought the event would help law enforcement be active in the community and support Special Olympics Kansas, according to the LETR website.
This year, World Games
Dunn is doing the Special Olympics World Games (next month in Germany) for the first time, picked partly since she’s the ISP coordinator for the LETR Committee in Illinois.
“Since it’s so large, we have a lot of people we need to get the information to,” Dunn said of ISP. “I found out about the World Games and anybody can submit. It’s evaluated on how much participation, how much fundraising you do, what your connection is.”
Because of the World Games, she won’t be able to do the Illinois Summer Games. There’s a flame-lighting ceremony Dunn will attend in Athens, Greece (every year they light it in Athens, and fly it to wherever the World Games are) on June 7.
The LETR in Germany will be in 16 legs from June 14 to 17.
The World Games have events in the summer and winter, the last one was held in Abu Dhabi in 2019. This will be the first time Germany has hosted, Dunn said, noting that country also does not have a LOTR program.
The first International Special Olympics Summer Games were held in Chicago in 1968.
The new torch is unique and was made especially for the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023. The design of the torch contains the elements of the World Games logo such as the Berlin Bear, Brandenburg Gate, TV Tower, and the heart.
In Germany, the Flame of Hope will be lit for the first time on June 14. After that, the official torch run will go through the host towns from Brandenburg to Berlin. On June 17, the flame of the Special Olympics World Games will be lit at the Opening Ceremony in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
During the run from June 14-16, the torch will be accompanied by 100 international runners, including Special Olympics athletes and international police officers (such as Dunn).
“This won’t just be the normal, get out there, you’re running the final leg in the country,” she said. “Now, we’re also engaging with them and working to build a Law Enforcement Torch Run program in their communities.”
Dunn will run all four days in Germany, ending in the stadium in Berlin and then change into their officer uniforms for the World Games Opening Ceremony.
“I am super excited – this is such an incredible opportunity,” she said.
Dunn and her husband have never been to Germany, but they have visited London, Paris, Wales, Portugal and Spain. “We are pretty avid travelers; Germany has been on our list, but we just haven’t had the opportunity. I’m pretty excited by this.”
She was not a runner before she joined State Police. “When I was at the academy, you’re required to run every day,” Dunn said. “Once I finished that, I continued to do it. Doing 5Ks, just to stay healthy and in shape, ready for whatever may come your way. I’ve never been a marathon runner.”
Dunkin’ to raise money
Dunn also will be part of the 8th-annual “Cop on A Rooftop” event – this year Friday, May 19, from 5 a.m. to noon at participating Dunkin’ locations nationwide. The Rock Island event she’ll be at (2711 18th Ave.) has raised a total of more than $170,000 for Special Olympics Illinois during the first seven years of the program.
Dunkin’ guests who donate to Cop on a Rooftop will receive a coupon for a free donut. If you donate $10 or more, you’ll receive a coupon for a free medium hot or iced coffee.
The LETR hosts a variety of annual fundraising events including Polar Plunges, Dunkin’ Cop on a Rooftop, Tip-A-Cop events, Truck Convoys and Plane Pull events. Since 1986, the Illinois efforts have raised more than $65 million while increasing awareness of Special Olympics Illinois athletes and their accomplishments.
2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the Dunkin’ and Illinois Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Illinois partnership. The Cop on a Rooftop fundraisers in the state have generated more than $7.6 million.
“This is the nice side of law enforcement, the positive things we’re doing in the community to better people,” Dunn said.
“People will generally pull up, even though we do this every year, and ask, ‘Is something happening?’” Dunn said of possible trouble that brought cops. “Well, come on in and find out.”
“It’s a great cause,” she said, noting there will be LETR merchandise available for sale. “It’s a big community engagement effort.”
Special Olympics Illinois raised $900,000 through Cop on a Rooftop last year, Dunn said, and they want to keep increasing that. There were 320 stores in Illinois last year doing it.
“All this goes right to the athletes; it’s such an incredible experience,” she said. “We get the experience of being out there with the public – interacting, laughing, having fun, chit-chatting, having coffee and donuts. Typical, right?”
Dunn also participated in a Special Olympics regional Spring Games in Monmouth May 6. The gold medal recipients get to go on to the Summer Games at ISU.
“It just happened to be the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics in the Midwest,” she said. “a lot of the athletes were super excited.”
Another reason the Special Olympics are special is that many athletes help each other during the competition.
“When someone falls, a competitor will go back and help them get up,” Dunn said. “Sometimes, they end up behind them and not get that medal. The athletes are all like that – ‘Are you OK, can I help you?’ It’s just inspiring. It shows you we can all be better human beings like that.”
Participating Dunkin’ locations for Cop on a Rooftop in the region include:
- 3501 Avenue of the Cities, Moline
- 1220 18th St., Silvis
- 1724 W. Locust St., Davenport
- 2519 E. 53rd St., Davenport
- 1122 N. 2nd St., Clinton
- 2603 2nd Ave., Muscatine
For a full list of participating locations in Illinois and Iowa, visit the event website HERE.
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics is a global movement to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. It fosters acceptance of all people through the power of sport and programming in education, health, and leadership. With more than six million athletes and Unified Sports partners and one million coaches and volunteers in over 200 accredited Programs, Special Olympics delivers more than 30 Olympic-type sports and over 100,000 games and competitions every year.
For more information on the Special Olympics World Games, click HERE.